hiking blind

This article is a collection of techniques I find useful while hiking blind. This is intended for other blind people who want to know more about how they can hike blind, and what techniques work. Keep in mind that there are as many ways to hike blind as there are blind hikers.

Just because I use a certain technique does not mean that your friend who doesn't like that technique is wrong. What works for some people doesn't work for others. I know blind people who absolutely hate high topped boots, while I prefer hiking in footware that adiquitely protects my ankles. Sighted people twist their ankles, I find that I twist them even more being blind. Boots seem to help with that, although after a lifetime of hiking and backpacking and skiing and such, my ankles are just flexible and I've adapted by becoming good at catching my balance, so maybe I just like high topped boots for non-blindness reasons, or maybe I'll start liking approach shoes more after using them for a bit.

I guide myself

I don't bother grabbing an elbow of someone for a sighted guide. You need your hands for balance. Hikes aren't city walks, having your hand on an elbow is not going to work out so well. Sometimes I touch someones backpack but the ground needs to be relatively smooth for that to make sense. I never connect to someone else with a tether like most blind runners do. I find that it doesn't help, because hiking trails are rocky. Following the trail isn't the hard part for me. While hiking I often have to go around obstacles, and grabbing a short tether makes this much more annoying. There is no room to be side by side on a single track, and often there's an undesirable exposure like a steep dropoff that makes being on the very edge something to avoid.

How to be prepared

In a lot of cases, but not all, with outdoor trecking, the good old budy system that is commonly used should be two buddies when one of the party members is blind. Let's say one of the sighted team members is injured and someone else needs to get help and get it fast. A sighted person is going to, realistically despite what some blindness orgs would like to believe, be the fastest person to get to a trail head or somewhere with cell/radio service to get help, or in the worst case scope out where to go to get a heli-evac. It's not really that big of a drawback anyway because a blind person is able to provide first-aid and another person is able to get help if it really comes down to that. Having emergency satalite radios or phones, etc might mitigate this to some extent, but only if that system is accessible enough to use. Also, there's primitive accessible compass apps and talking compasses but realistically there's no such thing as an accessible topo-map. Even the proper braille compasses I have seen (Which aren't even made anymore) don't have the necessary gear to take a baring, and talking compasses are mostly trash. Accessible maps don't even come close to providing what visual maps do, and they probably never will because let's face it, tactile resolution is complete crap compared to sight. In emergencies, hiking with sighted people who know how to read a map and have proper wilderness training for orienteering isn't just better, it's essential because there just aren't good accessible tools for orienteering and scouting out next moves in an emergency. Feel free to argue with me all day on how we could make orienteering accessible in principal here, but principals don't save your life, actually being able to orienteer does, and sighted people don't purposefully wait for the sun to go down just for fun to orienteer at night if they are really lost. For example, when winter hiking, there are plenty of terrain traps that can amplify the affect of an avilanche, and you will be berried in several meters of snow that is as thick as concrete and you will die. Realistically, the only way to avoid those kinds of traps is to either map out your root, or look around the terrain and realize you are walking into a trap so party members can spread out, or take other protective actions. The only safe way to avoid that kind of danger is to know it exists in the first place and being the blind guy who just insists you can map it out may just get you killed. Also, blind people can't easily read weather patterns to know that a bad storm is brewing like sighted people can. Last time I checked, "appears to be: clouds, sky, sky, and airplane" was not a good enough AI generated description of the weather from a live camera feed to let a blind person make those judgement calls. I've seen it go from hey, we should start to make a shelter, it's looking really nasty, to It's hailing, get the hell under something, in 15 minutes. So make sure the people you are with have those skills, for everyone's safety. My reason to have this section is to make sure blind people understand the gravity of the danger that can exist in the outdoors. Also, I want to encourage blind people to learn as many techniques as possible while still remaining aware of the reality that being blind does have drawbacks that can absolutely increase danger in the outdoors with recless disreguard for ones actual limitations.

Trekking poles

In terms of trekking: I tend to like to carry two trekking poles. I do this both on day hikes and on backpacking trips. I have two pole techniques I've developed.

  1. I keep one pole in front of my feet, and I shuffle that pole from one foot to the other, keeping it a step or two ahead and keeping it close enough to the ground that it'll hit obstacles as I encounter them, and use the other at my side for balance. I like this technique especially if I know there's a danger off to one side like a steep exposure that I do not want to fall down. The pole at my side serves two purposes:

    1. Protect from going over the edge: I can get warning of the edge with the pole by feeling it slide over the edge. A sighted friend won't realistically verbally be able to call out an edge quick enough, so use poles to prevent that.

    2. The side pole is for balance.

  2. The other technique I use is more common on smooth streight sections with few hazards, or when the amount of rocks limits the speed I will be traveling significantly. I don't move either pole back and forth, and I simply reach one pole out, then the other. I do this rhythmically, making sure the left foot moves forward while the right pole is moving forward, etc. This technique won't provide anywhere near the balance benefits of having a pole at the side, and won't give me distance estimates to the edge of the trail but in smoother situations this isn't as necessary, and when there are lots of random rocks on the trail that are unpredictable ankle twisters it seems to help. Also, putting a pole on the ground, in front of a foot will still help with balance, because it takes exactly 3 points to make a plain, thus 1 pole and two feet on the ground is extremely stable for balance.

Ideally, I want warning of a random rock or hole or root or step, etc before my ankle twists on it. So I want the poles to be long enough to warn me. For uphill sections, I found that I can imagine my arm is at a right angle with the ground, with my humerus at my side, and my forearm pointed straight out in front of me. I never strap the pole to my wrist. Sometimes I have to manuever the pole around something quickly and having it strapped to my arm makes that harder. Unlike a lot of people, I don't strap poles to my arm even when downhill skiing. I just don't like it, it likely isn't a blindness related thing. I do strap them to my arms when xc skiing, but the poles are used differently in xc from hiking at least in the ways I use them, and at least in xc skiing, there's far fewer dangers in the form of rocks on the trail that I have to worry about the poles being trapped on, and the front of the skis warn of danger ahead. It just seems risky that I'll trip and fall and get an arm stuck in a weird way with a pole strapped to it and break the arm or something. For downhills, I like to lengthen the poles. Because of this, I like trekking poles that are adjustable length. Black diamond makes some that I've been using for years. Don't cheap out, hiking poles are your friend. Get light poles with a good locking mechanism that doesn't release mid hike. Another pro tip is to take a piece of decently thick wire and some duck tape and have small amounts wrapped around the pole so the tape and wire can be used to repair a pole in an emergency. My dad had to repair an xc pole in this way once and it got him back well enough to make things work, and kept the sharp parts of the pole together well enough to prevent the broken pole from becoming a danger to us. Also, a lot of poles come with a rubber foot that you can put on them to transport the poles with, so they don't damage vehicles or your house. If you are not a novice hiker, this will sound silly, but remove these rubber tips before hiking. This is obvious to anyone who hikes a lot but I've seen my fair share of people who hike with the rubber safety tips on and wonder why the poles don't work well. The carbide tips are your friend, but they are mean to your vehicles which is why those rubber safety tips are a thing. Cheap poles use a screw mechanism that breaks too easily, and or starts to slide after a long time but may be enough for easy hikes or if you're willing to replace your poles every couple years. The poles I use almost have a clasp mechanism.

Verbal commands:

friends can give verbal commands for dangers, like big rocks, a sudden change in the exposures on the edge, cactus, barbed wire, big foot is on your right if you want to pet him, etc. Everyone ends up making a shorthand for this, like crossing log, left side cliff, scree ahead, down steps or up steps, bigfoot tracks, etc. The hiking poles should identify danger on the trail as it approaches but friends commands can help in anticipating dangers to look for with a couple seconds more warning. Also, fallen trees won't necessarily be found by poles, sometimes they can be balanced in weird ways where the main trunk is a good 2-3 feet in the air. A log with branches sticking out taken to the legs hurts a surprising amount and puncture wounds are not fun. Be patient with your friends, verbal skill takes a long time to develop. Random asside, in my experience, first responders develop this skill super fast because they're just used to completely unexpected things happening and reacting and relaying the situation by radio.

Crossing narrow bridges:

This is hard. It's important to stay on the bridge, and not fall several feet into water and hurt yourself. If you have rope, maybe you can have a friend on either end hold the rope so you can follow it. Parachute cord is light so it's easy to pack a 25 ft piece without overbudgeting too much. A little rope can go a long way in an emergency too, so it's not really too much of a drawback to have some. Don't use it as a safety, I.E. do not use it for balance, just as a guide as something your hand can follow. Either tie the chord to a tree on either side or have someone hold it on either side. This will only work if the bridge is streight. I almost never use this technique in practice, although maybe I should more. I've done it once or twice, but it requires setup that just going for it doesn't. If crossing alone, which is most likely, keep one pole at the literal edge of the bridge, and one in front of you. touch the edge of the bridge with the pole, trailing it, put a pole in front of your foot and just walk. Check with both poles to make sure you are centered occasionally. it's nurveracking to hear water below you, I have no easy answers. Honestly, walking over narrow bridges without railings is something that gets my adrenaline going always and I haven't figured out a good way to just do it, I don't know why it scares me to be honest. I can ski down a mountain at scary fast rates and without fear, but crossing a wooden bridge, I have to mentally prepare every time. I guess I'm just a sissy.

Crossing creeks with just rocks:

Touch a rock with a pole, a friend can call out if that's an okay step, and just go for it. If the rock doesn't feel like it'll move, and it is a decent target, just take the step. There's not many techniques I've used for this, but see the next section for rock hopping techniques. You're probably going to end up stepping in the water on occasion. It jus happens. I always have extra socks, even sometimes on day hikes, because wet socks are aweful.

Tallus and boulder hopping:

Talus and scree are incredibly annoying to hike for anyone, and that's no exception if you are blind. Loose boulders, rocks, and other debris A.K.A. talus will twist your ankles and mess with you psychologically because you'll feel like you're getting nowhere. Even sighted people deal with this psycological abuse from mother nature. For these loose pieces, I try to see how loose things are by tapping them with poles and hearing the sound they make and feeling with the pole to see if it obviously moves. Boulder hopping is also just unbelievably frustrating. Plan on a slow trip (not even joking, half a mile an hour sometimes). When climbing mt. yale, I was a thousand times more frustrated trying to move through the boulder field at the top than at any point climbing the actual mountain. Actually going up is only a torturous exercise in arobics, and honestly it hasn't ever been too bad. With boulder hopping though, I am trying to make sure I am stepping onto something that is big enough for my foot , with a big gap of nothingness between me and the next step, and that thing I'm trying to step onto could decide to randomly roll. It is both physically demanding and mentally exhausting. I touch a rock, knock on it a few times to know if its loose, then put my foot down next to that pole.

Tallus can be dangerous because it's litterally stepping from boulder to boulder sometimes, and dealing with random loose things. Sighted friends can sometimes help tell you where to step by tapping a rock with a trekking pole, but be patient because it's not easy for them either.

Scrambling:

If approaching a steep section where it's necessary to scramble up a small face, put one trekking pole away, and just use 1 + your hands, or even both hands if needed. For short scrambles, you can hand the pole off to someone who already got up, sometimes. Another trick I recently learned about involves stashing your pole/poles on your shoulder. Take the handle part of the pole, and slide it between the shoulder strap on your pack and your shoulder, pushing it a good distance in. Then tighten the sholder strap enough that it holds the pole/poles in place. Make sure to use the handle part of the pole, not the I want a puncture wound end. I've used an ice axe once or twice, but not enough to give safe advice on how to cross a snow field blind, so you're on your own there.

Audio cues:

Some people like having a friend hiking in front of them cary a cow bell with a gong in it on their pack so as they walk it jingles. This can be useful, and when hiking in bear country it has the added benefit of warning bears that there are people. I tend to not use this method and just try to cary conversation or listen to trekking poles hitting the ground, but on longer treks or in bear country I have done this. Also, that person may not want to have to carry a bell because one technique for long hikes is to eliminate swinging objects on a pack.

having a friend Trailing

This can be useful, as well, for giving directions, but if you're whereing a full brim hat you may obstruct their view enough to make it less than ideal. Also, if you are good at echolocation, hearing a person behind you, especially a taller person, can be disorienting and or feel stifling. I personally find it useful if moving fast to have a person behind rather than in front because I tend to walk fast enough that my poles sometimes end up finding my friends, and carbide tips are not good for legs. However on some climbing approaches recently I've been trailing my friends more and it seems to actually have benefits that I previously discounted for following someone around a curve.

Thanks for reading

If you have anyy other questions or tips of your own for this article, feel free to send me an email or tweet. Remember, I'm just giving advice from personal experience, there's no write or wrong answers with a lot of these techniques.